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Laisse LVIII. Laisse LIX. Laisse LX.
62 63 64
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
His ˜noble warriors™ are dutifully about to commit these multiple sacrileges
when they hear the church bells peal: ˜remembering God the Father of justice,
even the craziest of them felt compelled to show reverence™, and so they sim-
ply camp outside the town.65
On discovering this disobedience, Raoul at ¬rst characteristically loses con-
trol (˜fu molt demesurez™), but comes to see that the holy relics of the church
must not be destroyed. His uncle Guerri clinches the case with a frank assess-
ment of power: ˜If God takes against you, you won™t last long.™66 Raoul even
agrees to a truce with the nuns who serve the church, led by Marsent, Bernier™s
mother. Their meeting (as noted in Chapter 10) is a striking tableau of clergie
confronting chevalerie. The nuns process beyond the town walls, reciting the
holy of¬ce and carrying books, the symbols of their Latinate literacy and learn-
ing; Marsent even holds ˜a book from the time of Solomon™.
Though Raoul agrees to a truce, a chance incident, involving what he takes
to be disrespect to three of his men, sparks his successful all-out attack and the
¬ring of the town: ˜Rooms are burning here and ¬‚oors collapsing there, bar-
rels are catching ¬re, their hoops split, and children are burning to death in
horrible agony.™ The church, too, goes up in ¬‚ames and all the nuns die; a dis-
traught Bernier sees Marsent lying in the ¬‚ames, her priceless book symboli-
cally burning on her breast.67 His work for the day done, Raoul repairs to his
tent, dismounts from his great tawny warhorse, and is disarmed by barons
who love him, as the poet relates: ˜they unlace his green helmet ornamented
with pure gold, then they ungird his good steel sword, and take off his good
double hauberk from his back. . . . There was not such a ¬ne knight in the
whole of France, nor one so fearless at arms.™68
Kay™s comment about moral opacity and multiple perspectives comes read-
ily to mind. Medieval writers who commented on Raoul saw in him the very
model of violent excess, of demesure, allowing modern readers to believe that
the poet intended to provoke just such reactions. The text is peppered, in fact,
with explicit statements against demesure. The author observes early in the
action that ˜an unbridled man (hom desreez) has great dif¬culty in surviving™.69
Ybert, giving his son Bernier advice, states the same theme: ˜I will be honest
with you: I can tell you the story of many men™s lives, and an arrogant man will
never succeed, whatever anyone may say.™70 Shortly thereafter, Count Eudes
makes the same point: ˜Barons . . . noble knights! A man without moderation
(sans mesure) is not worth a ¬g.™71
The idea of sheer war-weariness, moreover, joins moderation as a close ally
near the close of Raoul I. Bernier and Gautier, the current champions of the
Laisse LX. Laisse LXII. Laisses LXX“LXXIV.
65 66 67

Laisse LXXIV. Laisse XXIV. Laisse XC. Laisse CIV.
68 69 70 71
Chanson de Geste and Reform 247
feuding sides, have fought their single combat and, as we have already noted,
lie severely wounded. Though Gautier, blood boiling, is shouting de¬ance
from his bed, Bernier suddenly declares enough is enough; peace is the great
need; resistance to it is sin. Wounded, semi-naked, publicly prostrating him-
self in the form of a cross before his enemy, Bernier offers his sword and a
paci¬c ultimatum: Gautier must either kill him or be reconciled. The blessings
of clergie descend on the offer as the Abbot of Saint-Germain comes into the
scene, loaded with sacred relics. A peace is, for the time, arranged.
Looking at such scenes as this, at the structure of the plot as a whole, and at
the explicit statements favouring mesure, we might easily decide that the ˜mes-
sage™ of the text is clear. Yet we cannot be certain how everyone in the audi-
ence heard and interpreted; nagging doubts and a sense of the need for
quali¬cation remain. The message can scarcely be paci¬sm: a realignment of
the feuding families against the king and the enthusiastic ¬ring of Paris, for
one thing, follow quickly on the heels of the reconciliation.
And in a more general way, fears of demesure and violence only slowly and
partially drag the heavy anchor of sheer, beloved prowess, the undiminished
commitment to honour defended with edged weapons. After Raoul dies on
the battle¬eld next to a slain opponent named John, the biggest knight in all
of France, the hearts are removed from the two bodies and laid out on a shield
to be examined; the result will be signi¬cant, for the heart was the seat of
prowess, the point of origin for the arteries which in Galenic theory carried the
animal vitality of the body. The giant John, it turns out, had the heart of a
child, while that of Raoul ˜was very much larger than that of a draught ox at
the plough™.72
The text thus shows some signs of ambivalence. The author wants mesure in
knights, wants them to learn not to burn churches, and certainly to avoid
burning nuns; he thinks there is a time to end wars, even if there is also a time
to initiate them. Yet through it all something of the ancient call to arms stirs
him, something of the grandeur in noble revenge seems satisfying, even it if
must inevitably, sadly, be achieved at great cost.73
This sense of complexity of view is reinforced by the absence of that
endorsement of royal power which so often appears as a theme in chanson de
geste. In this text, far from representing a needed regulator and peacemaker,
the king is ultimately at the root of the problems; he gives away Raoul™s ¬ef to
a favourite and later gives Raoul the ¬ef of the faithful royal vassal Herbert,
who has four sons. At the end of Raoul I the antagonistic families belatedly

Laisse CLX.

Matarasso agrees: see Recherches historiques, 163“4. ˜Raoul est ce h©ros ©pique™, she writes. ˜Il

suit son ©toile, l™©toile de grandeur, de la d©mesure, de la d©ch©ance™ (p. 174).
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
recognize these facts and turn against the king. At that point, far from acting
as the divine agent for peace, Louis, the author tells us, was privately sorry that
the feuding families had come to an accord.74
One might argue, of course, that the problem is not kingship per se, but
kingship which is too weak to carry out its essential role. Yet there is here none
of the endorsement and knightly defence of kingship right or wrong that
appeared so strikingly in The Crowning of Louis; in that text Louis, after all, was
surely another weak king, another king making mistakes.
A sense of the lingering respect for the most unreformed species of chivalry
continues, moreover, when we turn to issues of religious ideas and clerical per-
sonnel. Occasional traces of anticlericalism cause no surprise, of course, but
clerics generally stand in the background of this text (unless they are passive
victims), and religious ideas generally need to ¬t the framework of a most
worldly chivalry if they are to live. Religion works, if it works at all, at the exte-
rior level of power relationships negotiated with God, through formal acts and
words, not through interior motive or belief. Alice™s hasty curse on her son
when he refuses her advice works its terrible effects, despite her instant rush to
a church to pray for its nulli¬cation in accordance with her true intent. Once
the words are out, their effects follow, whatever her inner motivation. Ernaut,
desperate with fear as Raoul closes in for the kill on the battle¬eld, suddenly
sighs with relief when he hears the pursuing Raoul declare that even God and
his saints cannot stop his revenge: Ernaut knows such blasphemy will cancel
Raoul™s blows. Lady Alice thanks God heartily for the wounds Gautier has
in¬‚icted on Bernier in their duel. Just before the battle in which Raoul dies,
the knights, in the absence of priests, commune themselves with three blades
of grass. Riding into the fray, ˜every good knight weeps for the pity of it and
vows to God that if he escapes alive he will never in his life commit a sin again
or, if he does, he will do penance for it™.75 The dying Aliaume makes his con-
fession to Gautier, who raises the prone man™s head and turns it to face the
east. Oaths are sworn on relics, the participating laymen thinking they require
no priestly link with divinity for the transaction.
Religion, in other words, means adding required pieties to an essential war-
rior code, not changing that code in any signi¬cant way beyond what pru-
dence requires because of God™s superior power; religious ideas express
themselves through exteriorities, not by entering the heart or soul to work
basic changes within.

Laisse CCXLI. King Louis in this poem seems almost a generic king; as Matarasso says, he

is not any one in particular, but a ˜roi mannequin™, or even ˜une merionette™: see Recherches his-
toriques, 153, 155.
Laisse CXX.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 249
Thus the author of the ¬rst extant part of Raoul de Cambrai writes with cer-
tain reform ideas in mind: he wants more knightly mesure, he urges immunity
for holy places and for clerics, who are essential at times, despite their incon-
venience; he knows that revenge and war can drag on until costs exceed worth.
Yet he keeps looking back over his shoulder into the imagined past with what
seems almost nostalgia for the great game of honourable violence played by
stout warriors largely following their own set of rules.76 The complex way in
which chivalry could simultaneously be problem and cure is writ large in the
portion of Raoul dating from the mid-to-late twelfth century.
Has the picture changed much by the time the continuation known as Raoul
II appeared a generation later, in roughly the second decade of the thirteenth
century? A study of the vocabulary identifying adult males suggests some
movement away from the starkly martial quality of Raoul I.77 Moreover, the
author of the continuation gives his characters more outright speeches in
favour of peace, conciliation, and forgiveness; these go beyond mere war-
weariness to a sense of principle. At the very outset, Beatrice presses her
lovesuit by arguing that her marriage to Bernier will truly end the war between
their families, a result which comes to pass, at least for a time.78 The wise Doon
of Saint-Denis advises King Louis (who, granted, has just suffered a severe
reverse) to make peace with Bernier, to exchange prisoners ˜and be good
friends™. ˜ “God!” said the king, “what good advice that is.” ™79 In a moment of
crisis when one of Erchambaut™s men recognizes him, despite his careful dis-
guise, Bernier ˜adopts a conciliatory manner™ and promises to right an old
wrong done by his father.80 He is even more forgiving when he ¬nally con-
fronts Guerri the Red as the guilty father-in-law who was so swiftly willing to
marry off Beatrice after hearing uncertain news of Bernier™s capture and pos-
sible death.81 Mortally wounded by Guerri near the end of the continuation,
Bernier provides the greatest example of forgiveness: ˜Oh God our Father who
in his great mercy forgave Longinus his death, for that reason I believe I
should forgive him too. I pardon him”may God have mercy on me.™82
This sense of waxing piety may even be reinforced by the steady mention of
standard religious services; the protagonists are casually seen attending mass
and baptisms, going on pilgrimage.
Owen makes a similar assessment of what an audience of a ˜live™ performance of the Song of

Roland might have thought: ˜glorying in Roland™s pursuit of his ideal and untouched by Oliver™s
more worldly wisdom™: ˜Aspects of Demesure™, 149.
Chevalier throughout this earlier text is primarily a technical term for a man prepared by a

speci¬c military training for a particular mode of ¬ghting; in the later text it appears with greater
proportional frequency than such terms as warrior, baron, and vassal; at the same time the adjec-
tive preu gives some ground to cortois. See Kay, Raoul de Cambrai, xliii“xlv.
78 79 80

81 82
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Yet we would be incautious to think this continuation slackens in its praise
of prowess or offers a transformed conception of knighthood.83 From the out-
set, chivalry means deeds done on a battle¬eld; Beatrice loves Bernier because
of his prowess as well as his good looks, having heard him praised by Guerri
as one ˜who has performed so many feats of knighthood (qi avra faites tantes
chevaleries)™. When Bernier sheds tears over his wife™s capture and likely remar-
riage, Guerri accuses him of womanly behaviour, and then tops off his criti-
cism with a pr©cis of the standard knightly ethos: ˜No noble man should repine
so long as he is able to bear arms.™84 Bernier proves his skill at bearing arms tire-
lessly; after severing the head of the invading pagan champion Auciber (in
order to secure his own freedom from the pagan King Corsuble), he marks his
victory by tying the head to the ¬‚owing tail of the dead man™s horse.85 In his
second period of service to the pagan king, Bernier is praised unambiguously
by Corsuble for showing his nobility through his great prowess: ˜My Christian
brother, you are everything a high-born nobleman should be. You and your
son can boast of being the best in Christendom at sustaining and surviving the
great feats of war.™86
Being a pagan is clearly no bar to being a good knight or recognizing high
knightly qualities in others. The pagans refer to themselves as knights without
objection from the author who himself speaks of them being dubbed knights,
and even suggests that in combat they ˜wheeled round in the French style™.87
They are not lacking in any of the warrior qualities, and despite a few pro
forma swipes at their gods, are viewed simply as a mixture of worthy and
unworthy men all of whom suffer an unfortunate religious identi¬cation. The
warrior virtues, in other words, seem determinative.88
In the continuation, clerics more often step from the periphery to centre
stage, yet by and large they remain thoroughly dominated by lay powers. A
clear case in point occurs when Louis, who has just ambushed Bernier and
Beatrice on the way from the church to their wedding feast, wants to marry off
the lady to a favourite. She appeals to the clergy present to do their duty and
prevent disgrace to Christianity. But ˜[g]reat and small all keep silent, for they

The poet™s constant recognition of the importance of booty to the knights provides a good

example of his unblinking view of war. See, for example, laisses CCLXI, CCLXV, CCLXXXII,
CCCXXII, CCCXXVIII. Likewise, the ¬nal war of Raoul II involves the same sort of devastation
as that which opened Raoul I: ˜They start ¬res, sack the towns, seize the livestock, and have it
herded into army quarters; the peasant ploughmen take ¬‚ight™, laisse CCCXL. Serial ambushes set
up the early plot in Raoul II.
84 85 86


The same point appears, of course, in the continued description of Guerri as a great knight,

despite his eagerness to kill clerics, despite what his daughter recognizes as ˜an element of treach-
ery in his nature™, laisse CCCXXXV.
Chanson de Geste and Reform 251
are very afraid of strong King Louis™.89 Louis™s domination becomes physical
intimidation when he actually orders the marriage: ˜By the faith I owe St
Denis, if there is in all my land any archbishop, bishop, or consecrated abbot
who means to gainsay or prevent me, I™ll have him hacked limb from limb.™90
When Bernier and Guerri attack the open-air remarriage Louis is stage-
managing, Guerri enthusiastically calls for death to all the participating clerics:
˜ “Forward!” said Guerri the Red; “So help me God, woe betide us if a single
one escapes alive”clerk or priest or consecrated abbot”rather than being
killed and hacked to pieces.” ™ A modicum of mesure appears, though, for the
knights simply attack the offending clerics with the shafts, not the blades, of
their lances.91
What of kingship in the continuation? Louis obviously causes endless prob-
lems and shows weakness and villainy in Raoul II, as he did in Raoul I. He pro-
vokes a war by denying Bernier the ¬ef his father held; he is humiliatingly
unhorsed in that war, ˜for he was in the wrong”justice was not on his side™.92
He ambushes Bernier and his bride, as just noted; and, until stopped by his
wife, he was in process of sending the helpless Beatrice out into a ditch for the
sexual amusement of his eager squires.93
The formal statements about kingship in this portion of the poem, however,
look past the particular man to the of¬ce. In the midst of their battle against
Louis, Bernier suddenly calls out this principled view to his father:
In God™s name, sir, we are behaving foolishly. Can you deny that the king of France is
our overlord, whom I see here in mortal anguish? We may make peace again some
time, if he sees ¬t and Jesus grants it. If you take my advice, we should desist at once;
only if they attack us should we defend ourselves well.94

Beatrice gives the same line of advice to her two sons near the end of the poem:
Children . . . you must love each other, serve and respect your father, and protect the
king of France with all your power”for no one should act against him, and to do so is
to court disaster”upholding the crown and promoting its prestige. If you do as I tell
you, no one on earth can do you harm.95

An increased emphasis on kingship is obvious. Coming at the very time Philip
II was vigorously advancing the powers of the Capetian crown, it need cause
no surprise.96 Yet it is instructive to see that the ambiguities that made Raoul I
so fascinating and frustrating a text also remain, only slightly diminished, in
this continuation.

89 90 91

Laisse CCLXIII. Laisse CCLXXIV. Ibid.
92 93 94

Laisse CCCXXXIII. The work of Philip is examined in Baldwin, Philip Augustus.
95 96
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
Our three examples of chansons de geste, then, praise knighthood to the skies,
drawing on the timeless warrior ethos written into epic poetry in more than
one age, and fashioned here to the world of twelfth-century Europe. At one
level they love to praise noble men defending honour and taking revenge with
blood boiling, to picture sword strokes delivered in hot wrath.
But they worry; they urge some minimal restraints. Sometimes a sense that
war is endless, that, except for crusade, its cost is too high joins the sentiment,
expressed with a tenor of regret, that some diminution of heroism is actually
Gregorianism is scarcely acknowledged. Of course the sacramental rituals
intoned by the clerics are hardly to be denied, and even their rules and restric-
tions are at least half heard; but the rights and duties of the knightly life make
their own claims. The truly ¬ne among the tonsured appear as knights at heart
(since there can be but one standard) and will open doors, and ¬nally the door
of paradise, to good warriors who have done their hard duty. Meanwhile, the
choice of clerics for lucrative and powerful positions on earth ought still to
remain, despite all the Church reformers™ arguments, safely in lay hands. The
proper agency of practical direction and restraint, if one there must be, is legit-
imate kingship loyally supported by idealized knighthood. However trouble-
some any particular king might be, the principle of kingship deserves reverence
and support. The reiterated insistence on this principle, of course, leads us to
doubt that it was universally taken for granted in the world, where some
degree of tension between chivalric autonomy and royal authority was equally
certain. A text like Raoul I can only reinforce such doubts.

R O M A N C E elements have always seemed a quintessential ingredient in
the literature of chivalry, especially the portrayal of an individual knight
on quest, searching for adventure in the outer world and often refashioning
meaning in the world within himself.1 These questing knights are less likely to
seek adventures on a panoramic battle¬eld strewn with slain pagans, or even in
heroic defence of legitimate monarchy as guarantor of order, than in individual
acts intended to prove worth and to right wrongs. The quest is thus a splendid
medium not only for praising ideal knighthood, but for probing the relation-
ship of chivalric practices to the civilization emerging in high medieval Europe.
Though the quest pattern is common, the direction and destination vary
from one work to another. Much questing in the Lancelot“Grail cycle, for
example, originates in the need to ¬nd Lancelot or some other hero, absent
from the court on some quest of his own.2 These quests for the great heroes,
for identity, or simply for adventure, allow multiple thematic lines and raise
hard questions.
Some texts, however, give the quest motif particular focus, with adventures
leading to a dramatic transformation in a single hero or a small group. Here,
too, the hard questions keep coming to the surface, sometimes allowing for
multiple points of view, always emphasizing the dif¬culty of ¬nding solutions
to problems associated with knighthood in the real world. Three examples will
allow us to explore the links between quest and chivalry.

The Quest of the Holy Grail
The Quest of the Holy Grail (La Queste del Saint Graal),3 written about 1225“30
as a part of the vast Lancelot“Grail cycle, has been termed an anti-romance or
See footnote 3, Chapter 2, above.

For the importance of Lancelot™s own quest for identity in the slightly earlier Lancelot do Lac,

see Elspeth Kennedy, ˜Quest for Identity™.
Pauphilet, ed., Queste. I found two translations useful: Matarasso, tr., Quest and Burns, tr.,

Quest. For studies of the text, see Frappier, ˜Le Graal™; Bogdonow, Romance of the Grail; idem, ˜An
The Ambivalent Force of Chivalry
even a spiritual fable. It has also been called the last ¬‚owering of monastic cul-
ture.4 The text draws on biblical and patristic thought in ways that seem in par-
ticular to represent Cistercian spirituality which had been elaborated in the
previous century and preserved its in¬‚uence in a newer world of mendicants,
scholasticism, and universities.5 Scholars have thus long sought some species
of monastic origin for the author, but he was probably not a Cistercian monk,
nor even a product of their schools.6 Cistercian houses at this time contained
almost no vernacular works and considered even books on canon law a dan-
gerous diversion into worldly interests; likewise, Cistercian monks wrote
almost no vernacular works, and certainly no romances.7 Pauline Matarasso™s
conclusion seems balanced:
The Queste is assuredly the product of a monastic mind, but probably not of a strictly
monastic milieu. It could, I believe, have been written by a Cistercian seconded from
his abbey to some lay or ecclesiastical dignitary. It is more likely to be the work of a
younger man still searching for his vocation, if only because this was a commoner sit-
uation. It is unquestionably that of a man alert to the problems of his day.™8

How, then, does this author bring the ideals of monastic spirituality to bear
on knightly violence and disorder, and on the imperatives of sexuality”surely
outstanding instances of ˜the problems of his day™?
In signi¬cant ways the reforming programme of the Queste would have
drawn a resounding ˜amen™ from St Bernard, the great voice of Cistercian
monasticism of nearly a century earlier. Fanni Bogdanow has convincingly
linked Bernard™s theology and the programme of this text.9 At a more obvious
level, the link with the Knights Templar (for whom Bernard wrote ˜In Praise
of the New Knighthood™) appears in the ¬rst adventure of the quest. Hearing
or reading that the marvellous shield securely kept behind the altar in an abbey
of White Monks (the shield which King Baudemagus so unwisely carries for

Interpretation™; Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry; Baumgartner, L™Arbre et le pain; Shichtman,
˜Politicizing the Ineffable™.
Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 242“3.

Meaning in this romance has often been derived from an interpretation of the Grail, rather

than the reverse. See the discussion, with citations to other scholarly work, in Bogdanow, ˜An
Interpretation™, 23, n. 2.
6 Citations of important works on this point in Matarasso, Redemption of Chivalry, 228“9. One

obvious conclusion is that Walter Map, the worldly cleric claimed by the text as its author, did not
write the Queste. Not only did he die too soon, he truly hated the Cistercians. Matarasso thinks
the attribution re¬‚ects either ignorance or, equally likely, interest in causing Walter to roll uneasily
in his grave: pp. 232“377.
7 Ibid., 225“8.
8 Ibid., 240. In the introduction to her translation, Matarasso terms him ˜one of that great army

of clerks who wandered anonymously in that no-man™s land between the lay and ecclesiastical
worlds: Quest, 27. Cf. Baumgartner, L™Arbre et le pain, 42“5.
9 Bogdanow, ˜An Interpretation™.

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